Though it’s expressed as a work of fiction, film scholars commonly understand the 1941 cinema classic Citizen Kane to be an unofficial biopic of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and the launching of Orson Welles’ film career.
But the film also served as the magnum opus of social critic and Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, a man who battled with Welles for writing credit and was a frequent guest of Hearst through his connections with MGM executive Louis B. Mayer.
Some 80 years after the release of the lauded film masterpiece, Netflix partnered on a long-shelved project of celebrate auteur David Fincher, an artistic biopic of Mankiewicz that harkens back to classic Hollywood and meticulously revers both the original film and the man who wrote it without ever fully letting audiences in on either.
In many ways, Mank is to Citizen Kane what “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is to “Hamlet,” a narrow examination of a classic piece of art from the perspective from a character on the fringes of the original story.
Mank isn’t about what many expected before its release – the battle between Mankiewicz and Welles over screenwriting credit for Kane. Rather, the film posits itself as a deep character study of the M.G.M. script writer largely prior to Welles’ heavy involvement in the film itself.
Fincher – adapting a script from his late father Jack – uses Kane as a meta-text to construct the entire narrative of Mank from the visual cues and camera framing that feel lifted right off the R.K.O. studio lot to the back and forth structure panning back and forth in Mank’s life providing context for the scene that’s just played out on screen.
If Citizen Kane creates a portrait of a complicated man from the memories of those around him, Mank creates a portrait of another complicated man from the memories he tells himself.
Oscar winner Gary Oldman portrays the title character with the vigor of someone who has spent his whole life narrating and commenting on the lives of others – fictional and real – but has never really turned his mind towards himself. It’s a beautifully controlled performance that often harkens back to Welles’ turn as the indominable Charles Foster Kane of the 1941 film, but with a different twist that punches up Mank’s eccentricities.
The film hinges not on Mank’s ability to pen the screenplay for Kane, but on his relationships with three women – a distant marriage to wife Sara, an affable fondness for actress and Hearst mistress Marion Davies and unlikely friendship with secretary Rita Alexander.
Oldman approaches his chemistry with each of the three women differently while still maintaining a constant dry witticism that subdues those around him.
Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton do admirable jobs as Rita and Sara, respectively, but both are outshined by Amanda Seyfried’s enchanting, almost radiant performance as Marion Davies, a picture perfect take on vintage Hollywood ingénues.
It’s remarkable how closely Seyfried mirrors her wide-eyed turn as Davies to the one given by Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane, as if Seyfried herself fades off the screen and leaves Davies to play the real-life inspiration for the second Mrs. Kane. Scenes with Seyfried and Oldman have a heightened intensity and sparkle compared to the rest of Mank.
Netflix’s home viewing experience that will make Mank a far more approachable film also has the unfortunate effect of handcuffing the quality of Erik Messerschmidt‘s expert black-and-white cinematography.
Messerschmidt plays with light and shadow to create a compelling texture to scenes, engulfing the audience in a sea of bright white or endless void of darkness at a moment’s notice to reflect the overall tone of a scene and it’s in its boundlessly spectacular visuals that Mank truly feels like Fincher has studied Kane as the text for his film as Welles did with John Ford’s Stagecoach prior to shooting Kane.
But seen on a small screen, especially one with limited resolution quality or poor contrast settings, Mank will become muddled to the point of losing its pre-Technicolor cinematic luster, a shame given how striking it must be on the big screen.
Like its cinematic inspiration, Mank is poised to be a major player at the Academy Awards with likely nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Production Design. Prestige films about Hollywood have always overperformed at the Oscars and it’s easy to see Mank taking a similar path to the one The Artist did as a nostalgia for vintage moviemaking carries it to numerous trophies.
A thoroughly complicated and difficult picture to make and to sit through, Mank is sure to tantalize cinephiles and befuddle casual moviegoers. It feels impossible to completely appreciate and comprehend the depth of detail and cinematic texture Fincher and his team have painstakingly layered into a feature that feels like a masterpiece, though only history will ever tell if it actually becomes one.